Christine Blasey Ford Isn’t “mixed Up.” but the Way We Talk about Sexual Assault Still Is
By Michelle Ruiz
September 18, 2018
It’s a story as old as Adam and Eve: When something bad happens, blame the woman. Nearly 30 years ago, an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee attempted to undermine Anita Hill—some openly questioning her credibility and motivations—before ultimately confirming her alleged sexual harasser, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. This week, the very same narrative is playing out again with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the clinical psychology professor who has come forward to accuse President Trump’s latest SCOTUS pick, Brett Kavanaugh, of pinning her down and groping her at a party when they were both high school students around 1982. Both Ford and Kavanaugh are set to testify publicly about her allegation—which he denies—on Monday; the fate of Kavanaugh’s confirmation now hangs in the balance. And so the well-oiled white male protector machine has been launched into overdrive.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told reporters that Ford must be “mixed up” about the alleged assault, though, according to Ford, the nominee was “stumbling drunk” at the party, so it may be more likely that he’d be the one with a cloudy memory. (A culture of heavy drinking seems to be confirmed by Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s friend at the time, who later wrote a memoir about his various youthful indiscretions featuring a thinly veiled “Bart O’Kavanaugh.”) Former independent counsel Ken Starr (why are we still hearing from Ken Starr again?) similarly mused on CNN that Ford’s account of her assault must be a simple case of “mistaken identification,” as “false identification . . . happens every day.” Except, um, it actually does not.
False sexual assault accusations make for splashy media sensations and prime Dateline episodes—see: the UVA/Rolling Stone article; the Duke lacrosse case—but statistically speaking, they are extremely rare; 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault reports are false, and as Quartz recently noted, it is equally (if not more) rare that false accounts lead to criminal convictions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, “since records began in 1989, in the U.S. there are only 52 cases where men convicted of sexual assault were exonerated because it turned out they were falsely accused.” It’s a number that pales in comparison to the estimated 1 in 6 American women who will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, or the 1 in 4 college women alone who experience unwanted sexual contact.
Times may have changed (if only a little bit), but men’s excuses are still the same as they were when Hill was all but chastised in 1991. Particularly in Washington, where a multiply-accused sexual assaulter is in the White House, the impulse is still not to believe women, but to blame them. For as much progress as women may be making, there is still a tendency to, as Time’s Up put it, value a woman’s experience less than a man’s career. It is a cruel irony that even in the midst of #MeToo, the Trump administration defaults to hit jobs portraying sexual assault survivors as petty, vindictive witches wrongfully accusing men (from Trump himself to the likes of Roy Moore) for the thrill of it.
It needs to be said, evidently over and over, that women have far more to lose than to gain by publicly accusing men of sexual assault: Their reputations are consistently ruined, their privacy compromised, and their mental health threatened by the re-traumatization of publicly discussing what is, for many, one of the most painful things that has ever happened to them. We now know how traumatizing Kavanaugh’s alleged assault has been for Ford, because her therapist shared portions of notes with The Washington Post, showing the incident came up both in couples therapy with Ford’s husband dating back to 2012 and in solo sessions, long before Kavanaugh was a SCOTUS nominee. Likely taking these risks into account, Ford initially tried to remain anonymous, writing to a local lawmaker and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in July about the alleged assault and asking them to keep her identity confidential. She was right to worry: Conservatives have pounced on Christine A. Ford, a California social worker, sharing negative reviews of her practice online, mistaking her for Christine B. Ford. It wasn’t until The Intercept broke the news of her letter’s existence and reporters began circling her that Ford, sensing she’d be found out, came forward herself.
Perhaps the most base attack with respect to Ford is the suggestion that because her alleged assault happened in high school, it somehow doesn’t “count.” See: Donald Trump Jr.’s outright mockery of Ford on Instagram with a note scrawled in crayon, and New York Times opinion section editor Bari Weiss’s self-proclaimed “moral, cultural . . . ethical” question on MSNBC: “Let’s say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying?” The answer, for the record, should be yes. Sexual assault is disqualifying regardless of the age of the perpetrator. A person with that little regard for another should not be able to rule over the law that governs our whole country and chart its course for decades. While the hammer has yet to drop on the president, Kavanaugh should indeed join the scroll of men who are forced to confront the consequences of their sexual misconduct. If he were to sit on the Supreme Court, he would have a lot more power than Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose ever did.
The question now is will Ford’s hearing be much different than Hill’s was. Just how much has #MeToo changed our culture—and will those changes have any impact upon the Senate Committee on the Judiciary? (Hope rests with members like Sen. Kamala Harris.) “Today, the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991,” Hill writes in a Times op-ed published today. “In 2018, our senators must get it right.”